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Monday, August 9, 2010

Ideas for Beating the Heat

Texas summers are notoriously miserable and this summer does not disappoint. It seems we are constantly under a heat advisory with temperatures reaching 107. Though we have yet to lose a chicken to the weather, the chickens look miserable most of the time, panting and holding their wings out. Chickens don't sweat and they stop drinking water when it gets tepid, so we do a few things to make their lives better in this awful heat and help them stay hydrated.

1. Watermelon - this is by far their favorite way to cool off. When watermelon is on sale at the store I buy one or two and keep it in the fridge. Once it's cool I cut it up and put it out in the hottest part of the afternoon and the chickens eat all the red and white meat and leave a sliver of a rind. They cool off and gets lots of liquid at the same time.

2. Cheap fan - There is a small portable fan in the corner of the coop. Then hens fight on the roost at night to get in front of it and it keeps them from getting overheated when laying eggs or eating.

3. Hillbilly Air Conditioners - Refilling empty 2 liter drink bottles (or similar containers) 2/3 full with water and freezing them is pretty easy. Placing these in the coop allows the chickens cool spots they can be near or sit against to cool off. The same containers can be reused several times.

4. Chicken bath - I used the top of a birdbath left here by the previous home owner and a slow dripping hose to create a little bird bath on the ground. The dripping provides fresh water, drips a bit on the ground for cool mud the hens love, and provides a cool spot in the run. Sometimes the hens even stand in it to cool off.

We have mixed the juveniles with the hens (they kept sneaking in and out of their run anyways) and now our (their) biggest problem is hen pecking. They are not kind to the little ones and keep them from the coolest spots in the yard.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Sad Day for Goldie

I was in Florida yesterday on assignment and returned home to find the chicks that just hatched are gone. Unfortunately one of the chicks was crushed only halfway out of the shell but two chicks were hatched. Goldie is still sitting on the remaining three eggs. Their coop door was closed and secured before dark last night so I'm not sure what could have happened. We can't find any trace of them. I'll let her sit for another couple of days and is none of the other eggs hatch, we'll have to break her broodiness.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Updates on the flock

The chicks are big now and they should be at almost 9 weeks old! I put them outside when they were about three weeks old because it was so hot outside and I worried that lowering the temperature on the babies would give them a tough adjustment to the hellish temperatures outside. They've done great there and it was nice to not have chicks take over the storage room. I did make an impulse purchase immediately after we got the chicks and bought two Americana chicks from the feed store. One got wet (I think) and died within two days. They other was thriving with the baby flock until last weekend. The chicks were receiving their favorite treat - watermelon - when I noticed we were one short. I found a gruesome scene in the coop - a possum or similar night creature snuck into the coop and ate the whole middle part of the remaining Americana. We now have a chicken cemetery in the backyard.

There is at least one rooster in the six young chicks but maybe as many as four or five. Their fate hangs in the balance... Hopefully we'll know in the next month. After the hateful Sampson I have no more desire to have full size roosters in our flock. I volunteered at a local sustainable family farm on their chicken slaughter day with the hopes I'll be able to do the same when the need arises. I never thought having chickens would get me so very close to my food in more ways than our eggs.

In the meantime I read about Japanese Bantams and we have four in the storage room. The advantage of these guys is that they are beautiful, the bantam crow is miniaturized, and this particular breed is an ornamental garden bird that won't tear up grass or your garden. But they seem like a very fragile breed. We started with three and one died, got three more and one of those died. I am very worried about putting them outside.

We also had a Buff Orphington go broody on us. I tried to break her by pulling the eggs out from under her and locking her out of the coop, but in the end she was so determined to sit the she would sit all day and night on nothing. So I went to Bagience Farms and got six eggs for her to sit on. Three are Americana (the easter egger chickens) and three assorted bantam eggs (one Rosecomb, one Japanese, and one Old English). This was probably a mistake - I read later that the bantam eggs hatch early. We'll see if she allows all of them to hatch or stops sitting after the little eggs hatch.

I just went outside to find one of the eggs is hatching! She has been sitting on them 18 days - the big eggs should take 21.

So the little urban farm has grown...

Friday, May 28, 2010

Cheeky chicks...

I was in New York this weekend and was delighted to get a voicemail from Laurie, the egg hatching wonder-woman in Ennis. "Letting you know they're hatching, hatching, hatching! They started Friday and should be finished Sunday, if not the stragglers will be done Monday."

On Wednesday our neighbors (Ann and Krista) and I hopped in the car and headed for Ennis. Laurie's been hatching eggs for 15 years and will hatch them for an incredibly modest fee per egg or for half the hatchlings. We opted for the latter. 13 of our 14 eggs hatched though one chick died shortly after. When we arrived Laurie showed us her setup with the incubators, brooder, and a hatching goose! (and yes, I would highly recommend Laurie for hatching eggs - her email is kiaranch@msn.com) I carried a small box down with me and carefully selected six chicks. And and Krista brought home eight (though coincidentally they had a hen go broody in the meantime and she hatched nine chicks so they have 17 babies!)

So here are our six newbies...

Somehow we ended up with a feather-footed gray baby. She's my new favorite.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Sampson's Legacy...

Sampson has a new home. As a last ditch effort before his slaughter I put an ad on craigslist and he is now living in the country with two Rhode Island hens, one of which is broody. Brian drove him out to meet his new owner. Hopefully he'll behave in his new digs!

The slow food tour came through and we had such a blast showing off our coop and talking about the girls. I made a silly, over the top last min touch to the coop. I'm sure we were the craziest people on the tour.

We also delivered  14 of our fertile eggs (and 22 of our neighbors') to a woman with an incubator in Ennis (just south of Dallas). She hatches eggs all the time in three incubators and she candled eggs for us. We even saw a turkey beginning to hatch - if you held the egg to your ear you can hear it scratching around. There were a few brooders full of new babies - the little geese were excited and just talked to her, trying to nibble on her lips. It was so insanely adorable. Made me want geese chicks (like we need any more animals in our backyard!). I was in heaven walking around her miniature horses, peafowl, turkeys, geese, and chickens. She even has two Great Pyrenees puppies being trained to protect her flock. They live with the poultry!

The eggs went into the incubator yesterday and in 21 days we should have chicks! She'll keep half of the hatch and we will have a few little chicks to add to the girls. I'll be anxious to see how many roosters we have out of our seven possible hatchings. I'm not going to dwell on it until after we get them. Sampson's legacy...

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Rooster Madness...

Sampson is maturing in a huge, strong Rhode Island Red rooster. He doesn't have his spurs yet and his crow is still a bit sad - sounds like a teenage boy going through puberty - but he is a screamer! I thought I was so clever - I trained him to follow at my heels on the short walk from his dog crate in the converted garage to the yard in the mornings. He did it perfectly a couple of times (most likely because he hates being in the house and loves being with his hens). Brian wanted to try and he did pretty good, but a min or so after getting in the yard Brian (still in his underwear, t-shirt, and flop flops mind you) was screaming bloody murder! Sampson had turned on him in the middle of the yard before Brian could get him in the run. When I got outside Sampson was puffed up aiming for Brian again. I said his name and he calmed instantly and came to me. We figured it was a gender thing.

Two days later Sampson did the same thing to me - morning, middle of the yard. He came at me, flying and aiming his claws at me. Determined not to let him win a fight and dominance over us, I kicked him with a bit of gusto. He landed on his back and then CAME RIGHT BACK AT ME! I couldn't stop him from coming at me a few times and screamed for Brian who brought me a broom. Once he saw it he dropped his fight.

Now he is wholly unpredictable and has attacked me about ever couple of days. I handle him at least twice daily and he never gives me grief when I'm doing that, but he attacks me in the run when my back is turned or when I am dumping into the compost. I carry a branch from a Nandina bush I trimmed with tons of leaves. I use it to defend myself. It's big and soft but the size makes him hesitate when it comes to attacking me. But I am worried about those spurs. Once those come in we will really be dealing with a crazy (albeit small) beast. I wish now we'd kept Frank and eaten this guy. I do like watching the hens with a rooster - he keeps them together and is very alert all the time so that they can sort of be oblivious. But RIR roosters have a reputation of being very aggressive. Our dilemma - give him to someone else and he'll be just as bad (but probably worse). I'm afraid he might also be destined for the dinner table, but this time without the sadness I felt with the other rooster. I think Sampson's time is soon...

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Slow Food Dallas Backyard Chicken Tour

Slow Food Dallas has arrange a unique tour of six chicken coops in the Dallas area on May 1st. We are excited to be one of the coops on the tour! The group meets in the morning and carpools to locations - the cost of the tour includes lunch at Smoke. Hope to meet some of you then and introduce you personally to the flock!
Details here: http://www.slowfooddallas.com/

and a REMINDER - A Peep at the Coops, a tour of coops in east Dallas happens tomorrow, with a rain date of April 25.  More info here: http://apeepatthecoops.blogspot.com/

Friday, April 16, 2010

Taj Ma-coop

The chickens outgrew their coop awhile ago. Our little coop was perfect for the first round of chickens and great for four of five hens when free ranging them but we wanted to keep a few more. We sold our first coop to a family a mile or so away and they took two of our hens (previously Frittata and Red). They have since been renamed as Chi-Chi and Chum-Chum. Two kids were very excited about their new hens. Dorothy, the new owner reports their cat has resigned itself to the chickens and both hens are laying an egg every day.

We found an ad on craigslist for a guy named Brad King (kingbj@att.net) who builds coops and playhouses and we just couldn't resist this super cute house for our hens. As fate would have it, the freak snow storm several weeks ago destroyed not only our run but also our sweet gazebo, providing the room in the backyard for the new, super deluxe coop. Brad and his family drove north from outside of Austin to deliver and install the coop.

The house was constructed in Brad's studio and flat packed on his trailer.

Our empty space (note the lack of grass thanks to the chickens).

The coops are built to order and we got a 6x9 coop. But the pieces were too large for our gate so part of the fence was removed to get it in! The first coop is in the frame on the right. 

The highest point on the coop is 9', perfect for us to walk into.

Outfitted with 5 lovely nesting boxes and easy access to the boxes from outside.

The first night the chickens refused to go inside. They just kept circling the old coop. We let them go inside the old one and I transferred each bird, one by one to the new house. Then a couple of hours later I went to check on them. 
Note the empty roosting bar at the front.

Now everyone sleeps on roosting bars. We have installed a cedar picket fence to go with the coop and allow our yard to recover from hungry hungry hens. It is doing pretty well, I'm sure months of their fertilization have helped. Here are images from today. The chandelier is from our old gazebo. A panel on the right side of the house allows for easy egg access. There is a small chicken door that stays open during the day and locks at night to keep everyone safe.
We're down to eight hens and one sassy rooster. Today was an 8 egg day!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Great Rooster Debate

We only wanted hens. They lay the same number of eggs without a rooster and, frankly, we saw no benefit to the male side of the chicken world. Roosters are beautiful but loud, mean and hard to handle, according to many stories I've heard. My mom has a great tale about some mean rooster going after her cousin while visiting grandmas when they were little kids, and her grandmother frying it up that very night. I wanted nothing to do with roosters.

We ordered our all-female box-o-chicks from the hatchery and figured those hens would have us well on our way to creulety-free eggs. A few weeks into our experiment we noticed a couple of babies had larger combs than the others. We weren't sure of one and so we named it Frank (or Frankie if it was so inclined). I wound up being a beautiful Rose Comb Brown Leghorn. Absolutely stunning. The other was much stronger and was crowned Sampson. Low and behold - we had the sweetest, most gentle roosters in our flock.

Now, in the city of Richardson (according to the animal shelter) there is no ordinance against roosters. I know, I was shocked too. The woman at the shelter told me you can have them until they crow, and, inevitably, your neighbors make a noise complaint. I thought we'd get rid of them as soon as they started crowing (being a good neighbor and such) but just for fun I googled "benefits of a rooster." There are some great stories about roosters fighting predators to the death to defend their flock on the internet. We have some neighbors a couple of doors down who found a dead possum in their coop - courtesy of their amazing rooster. And we've lost two of our chickens to hawks, so we started thinking about keeping them and how to do it while still being neighborly.

Frank began crowing first and I was horrified. Crack of dawn schedule. I bought a big dog crate and put it in the storage room (in the converted garage). Each night I began gathering the two roosters after dark and putting them in the crate. They still crow but it's muffled. I generally let them out after 9am when they're unlikely to wake anyone. We spoke with our next door neighbors, asked them to please let us know if the crowing ever gets irritating  - we said we promptly get rid of the dudes - and they promised to let us know.

Sampson was hesitantly crowing. We laughed when we heard him. He sounded like a toy desperately in need of new batteries.

There is another reason we wanted to keep a dude around. The truth is that even if you get chicks from a hatchery for eggs produced by humanely raised chickens, you're still contributing to a system that isn't cruelty free. Half of all chicks hatched are males and the vast majority of cockerels hatched in places like McMurrary (where our babies came from) are destroyed within a day or two of hatching. I think for an omnivore, backyard chickens are a much lesser evil than battery hens. Broodiness has been bred out of most chickens, but I sure would love it if our chickens could produce their own chicks to restore our flock, instead of buying from a hatchery again.

But two roosters may have been too much for our 8 or 10 hens. They're pretty aggressive when mating and the girls scream as the rooster pulls of their neck feathers or combs. Sampson is fairly fearless and approaches anything questionable in the yard, while Frank is a bit more wild and timid, so we thought our alpha would be a better defender. Plus, he crows less. I really want to be practical about all this - chickens and roosters - all of it. We decided we would eat Frank. As an unapologetic meat eater I figure that if I can't eat a chicken I raised, who had a great life outdoors eating fresh grass and flowers, then I have no business eating meat.... But I'm also a total wimp when it comes to killing anything.

I worked with a taxidermist on an art project and called him up to see if he could slaughter, butcher and mount our rooster. Frank is so beautiful, and Brian thought he might be great taxidermied.

I took him in this morning, repeating the logical reasons to myself. He had a great life, it will be a fast, humane slaughter, this will be the most ethical meat I have ever eaten. I told myself it was the right thing to do.

It was awful. I felt terrible on the way home. I don't know anymore that I can raise my own food aside from vegetables and eggs. I went in the backyard and spent time with the girls, thinking it would make me feel better, but it only make me feel worse.

We'll eat him tomorrow. My mom promised to fry him up for us (she's an awesome cook) and I will be thankful to Frank, both before and during the meal, for sustaining us, in a way I have never been before toward an animal.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Peep at the Coops

Mark your calendar - next month a free tour of chicken coops will take place in east Dallas. Organizer Chere Hickock says there will also be homeowners with cool projects in addition to the hen keeping who have bees, composting, and rainwater catching. A similar event in Austin drew more than 1,000 visitors. Find information about the event on their blog. You can bet I'll be touring backyards April 18th!

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Chicken Chatter

I have been amazed about the sounds that come from our flock. Sound is incredibly important in the beginning of a chick's life. They begin in the eggs, before they hatch. Momma hen and chicks cluck and cheep at each other as she incubates and turns the eggs and when they hatch, she knows them and they her, by sound. And once they lay eggs they have a particular egg song (which sound to me like they are complaining about passing yet another egg).

I will be the first to admit I am a total nerd about the flock. And making audio recordings of your flock is pretty nerdy, but I just can't help myself.

From the moment they arrived on our doorstep (via USPS) they were chirping away (listen here). In fact, their chirping never stopped (except when I played the recording back to them and they were all silently watching the recording).

Now they seem to talk to each other, but it isn't quite a clucking yet. Sometimes it's close to a purr mixed with a little growl. They don't quite sound like chickens to me, but we still have a couple of months to go from pullet to hen (and from cockerel to rooster). Sampson, the roo, is also vocal, but no attempts at crowing yet. They talk to us when we go outside with corn (aka chicken crack) in our hands, when we pick them up, when they realize the group has walked away from them - basically they chat whenever some thought comes into their heads. Pepper was sure to let us know how she felt in isolation (it sounded like a grumpy fussing) and she was quiet when we walked away. But my favorite chicken conversation happens at dusk when they decide it's time for bed. Chickens can't see in the dark, so as the sun sets and it slowly turns from night to day outside, the chickens head toward the coop. About 20 mins before dark they will all be settled in the coop for the night but the process takes about 10 mins from start to finish. One chicken heads up the ladder and finds a roosting spot, then another heads up and finds their spot. By the time the fourth or fifth pullet is in the coop the birds are fussing for the best spots (in this case "best" means closest to the opening, which seems silly to me - the opening is the most dangerous in regards to predators, but then again, I have to remind myself, I am not a chicken). We hear louder talk and flapping of feathers as more go up. One of the Buff Orphingtons is always last up (that's Goldie or Hawn) and then they quiet down and are pretty silent for the night. I love watching them go up - Brian calls it our chicken TV. One night I set up my iPhone recording in the coop before they started the ritual (keeping my fingers crossed that no calls came in and that no chickens knocked it down). The recording is 10 mins long from first hen climbing the ladder to the last settling down. You can listen here but unless you are a total nerd (like the author of this blog), you might want to jump in the middle and listen to a min or so.

Friday, February 12, 2010

White Texas?!?

It snowed more than a foot here yesterday - completely unheard of in Dallas. I was stuck in Houston for several hours waiting to catch a plane to Dallas and got in pretty late. I just love the house covered in snow!

The chicken run collapsed under the weight of snow, so I think a new, more permanent run is in the future. The funny thing is, the chickens won't go out in the snow! I got them out briefly with food, but they headed back inside the coop after a few mins. Their feet aren't made for wet or cold. Happy me and miserable chickens!

Pepper has been reintegrated and is happy and healthy. The was a great surprise waiting for me...
Yep - her very first eggs - and five at that! I thought she wouldn't lay because she is underweight but she's been busy! Yea! Finally, after all that waiting...

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Meet the Flock - Chicken Portraits at 3 months



Frank (with Rose comb, illegal roo)

Goldie & Hawn


Sampson (illegal roo)
Tammy Faye Baker
special thanks to Tanner for her assistance and help chicken wrangling

Monday, February 1, 2010

Another Vet Visit - Pepper Update

Pepper had one round worm egg in her stool, so the vet wanted to check more chickens out to see if they were sick. To save money we did a group stool sample (instead of 11 more individual samples). He also wanted to get weight on two of the pullets and "the heaviest rooster." The (un)lucky trio was Tammy Fae Baker, Hawn (as in Goldie), and Sampson. Sampson got his own cage since he tried stomping the girls when they were in the same one. I think the vet techs got a kick out of the group. It is certain most people don't take chickens to the vet. I get it now.

All three were weighed. Sampson was the ringmaster.
Hawn will perch wherever looks good. She scared the tech who wasn't watching when she picked her arm to fly onto but the tech ended up loving Hawn.

Good news - the vet called the next day and all tests were negative. The flock is healthy and fine. The vet recommended we treat them anyways as a precaution. But you have to be careful with chickens and meds. Since we're treating Pepper with a drug untested on poultry we can never sell her eggs (though the USDA vet assured me it was safe to eat her eggs after 10 days). It seemed silly to treat the rest of the flock for something they don't have considering it mars their eggs for life. Pepper's medication and bills cost over $270 and the trio's check up was $134. The vets still wanted to run more tests and see Pepper for checkups, but I felt sort of taken by the bills (after all, you can get new, healthy hens already laying eggs for $20 or less each). These birds are somewhere between livestock and pets and I want to stay reasonable about them. After all, we have backyard hens so that we aren't contributing to the cruel and unethical system of battery hens where each animal is reduced to a cog in a machine. These chickens will have good lives, in a healthy flock, free-ranging on grass and eating bugs. We want to be responsible about our food. On the other hand we don't want a dozen pet birds who don't lay eggs.

I understand now why most vets won't see chickens. I'm sick we spent $400+ After a few hundred dollars in vet bills, these birds will have the advise of the USDA vets and we'll avoid the in-person vets. If one gets sick, we will immediately separate them and hope they can ride it out. They're more like us - completely uninsured!

Update on Pepper - She has completed her drugs and is in quarantine until this Friday (more than 2 weeks of separation). I couldn't get a rooster to stay with her - they became neurotic and acted like they were going to ram through the wire. She paces back and forth all day but looks and acts very healthy and is rapidly putting on weight. We'll re-integrate  her at the end of the week and disinfect her area. I'm sure she's looking forward to being out of prison!